LIFE at Wheaton Bible Church

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Someone You Should Know: Mark Irvin

Mark_PhotoAn Interview with Mark Irvin, Pastor of Marriage, Men and Care

Tell us about growing up.

I was born in Toronto, Canada, the oldest of four kids. I have two sisters, and a brother who is ten years younger than me. My dad was a pastor. In 1967, when I was seven, he accepted a job as Dean of Students at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and we moved to Wheaton.

I have lived in this area ever since. I attended Emerson Grade School, Monroe Junior High, and the old Wheaton Central High School. But I never forgot my Canadian roots. While growing up in Wheaton, I was one of the few guys in the neighborhood who wore a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey when everybody else was wearing Chicago Bears football gear.

How did you come to faith?

I’m told that I came to my dad when I was three years old and said that I wanted to ask Jesus into my heart. He was an associate pastor at the time, so he asked the senior pastor of the church whether or not to encourage me. The senior pastor said that if I was pushing for it on my own, he should let it happen.

I can’t remember a time when I doubted my personal faith in Jesus. I remember some important, spiritually impacting times in high school, including some camps and a retreat during my freshman year, when I “put spiritual stakes in the ground.”

Wedding day for Mark and Sharon in June of 1982

Wedding day for Mark and Sharon in June of 1982

 Tell us about your wife, Sharon. Where and when did you two meet?

Sharon was born in St. Charles and, like me, grew up in the area. Her dad, Arnie Howard, was a professor in Wheaton College’s business-economics department. Sharon is the youngest of four children.

We think we probably met in fourth grade, when we attended the same church, but our first memories of each other begin in junior high. I felt fortunate that Sharon even noticed me, because she often hung around with her older brothers, who were in the high school group.

We started dating our junior year in high school, and we dated all the way through college.

What came next?

I graduated from Valparaiso University. Within a month of graduation, we got married, set up our first apartment (on College Avenue in Wheaton), and took out a loan on a car—all those things that you do to create stress when you’re twenty-two years old.

Three years later we had our first child. Kristin was born in 1985. We originally said that we wanted to be married three years before we had kids, and Kristin was born two months before our third-year anniversary. So I like to tell young couples that Kristin was right on schedule. Three years after her birth, in 1988, Todd came along.

I might add that Sharon and I have been married 32 years now. I’ve been so blessed that God gave me a helpmate to do life and ministry with for these 32 years. While we each have had our own areas of ministry, it is great to do the marriage ministry together.

Our daughter, Kristin, lives in Glen Ellyn with her husband, Eric. Todd, who is now 25, lives in Arlington Heights.

Walk us through your professional career and education.

I was hired by AT&T after graduating from Valparaiso with a degree in electrical engineering. I eventually spent thirty years at AT&T, which later became Lucent and, finally, Alcatel-Lucent. During those years I was always in grad school part-time, starting with a masters in computer science at IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology).

In the meantime I was promoted to management and ended my programming-code and software-writing days. At that point I thought, If I’m going to be in management—where all the decisions tend to get made—the right next degree is an MBA. So in 1991 I went back to school again for four summers as part of an executive MBA program at Purdue. I was made a director at Lucent in 1999; there were about sixty people working for me in Boston and about a hundred here.

Then I got a new boss, who made Boston the only US site. So I had to lay off 100 people in Naperville (not fun), and I started commuting to Boston in 2002. It was rough to be a dad with that kind of commute. I remember missing an important concert, where my daughter received an award. It was at that time that I prayed for a change, and I promised God that if He led me to a job back in Chicago, I would go back to school for ministry training. In 2008, I started a masters program in biblical studies at Wheaton.

A recent photo of Mark’s family, (left to right) Mark; Kristin’s husband, Eric; Kristin; Sharon, and Todd.

A recent photo of Mark’s family, (left to right) Mark; Kristin’s husband, Eric; Kristin; Sharon, and Todd.

Describe how God led you from business to ministry.

When I was in high school, I was president of my church youth group. Once somebody asked me what I wanted to be after college. I said that I was going to study to be an engineer. She commented, “I thought all presidents of the youth group ended up as pastors or in ministry.”

People talk about being “called” into ministry, but I didn’t have a burning-bush or Isaiah-type call. Nevertheless, I was always very involved in ministry as a volunteer. In the early nineties my focus was with men and Promise Keepers, the national men’s movement that featured weekend spiritual-growth gatherings in large stadiums with thousands in attendance. I took two groups of about a hundred guys two different years.

In addition, Sharon and I led the college ministry at the church we were attending then. I was a primary teacher, and Sharon led a small group of women. So we were always heavily involved in lay ministry. Sharon also served for a time as the director of the women’s ministry at the church we were attending.

When I was with Alcatel-Lucent, I felt as if I was an “evangelist” of common sense. In the business world, you come to the table with a certain judgment about what’s going on, what needs to happen, how you need to improve a situation, and all those types of things. I feel that I brought those same skills to ministry. I’m a firm believer that God doesn’t waste our skills or experiences.

After the commute to Boston and going back to grad school at Wheaton, I started to sense God was leading me to retire from Alcatel-Lucent and spend my time and energy doing ministry. I didn’t know what or where, but I did find less and less satisfaction in my “full-time job” and more and more enjoyment in using my gifts in the church.  When the chance came to become part of the WBC staff, it wasn’t even a question. Without even knowing how we would make it work financially, Sharon and I both felt this was God’s leading and His plan for us.

The other thing my business experience does is give me an ability to relate to guys. I know what they’re going through. I can talk their language. I’ve experienced the stress and had to do some of the hard things that work can involve. I can interact with what they’re dealing with and what their issues are, depending on the jobs they have, since I came from that world.

When and why did you come to Wheaton Bible Church?

We came five years ago, in 2008, for the very first services that were held in the new building. We had been part of a church plant for a number of years, and it felt like it was the right time to move on. We sensed we needed some deeper discipleship.

I remember that first Sunday, sitting in the Foundation Builders Adult Community under Chris Mitchell, and taking two pages of notes. Then we went to the worship service, and I took another two pages of notes. We very much valued the depth of what we were experiencing.

You have one of the longer job titles at the church: Pastor of Marriage, Men, and Care. Let’s start with marriage.

Sure. Sharon and I have always enjoyed mentoring, speaking into lives of young couples, peers, all sorts of things in that space. One of the things that we observed was that the family pretty much goes the way the marriage goes. At church we can have a great children’s ministry that speaks into the lives of kids, but that investment can be neutralized or undermined if they go home and see Mom and Dad, who claim to be Christians, not practicing faith in a way that honors God.

I think one of the reasons the greater church has struggled the way it has is that there have been so many families where the parents say that they’re committed Christians but they fight all week—even on the way to church. And the kids look at the parents and say, If that’s Christianity, I don’t want any part of it. 

Verses like Judges 2:10 are so challenging to me. It says, “After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel.” Current parents are on the front end of that storyline. The trajectory of their walk with God, and the way their marriages go, will dictate in large part the way the next generation is going to go. So I believe that getting marriage right is critical.

Popular culture continues to look at marriage from a negative viewpoint—being kind of like handcuffs. Others see it as sort of a financial transaction: as long as I’m getting more out of it than I’m putting into it, it’s a good deal. But the minute I’m putting more into it than I’m getting out of it, it’s a bad deal, and it’s time to look for a better one. We want to help stem that negative tide relative to marriage.

I feel that God has put that call on my plate. Before I interviewed for this job, I woke up one morning feeling as if I’d been wrestling with this through the night—the reality that marriages are either on a downward trajectory or an upward trajectory. Either couples start as newlyweds encountering speed bumps and don’t have any way to process them, or early in their marriage they are being discipled to deal with the speed bumps and communication. Pastor and author Tim Keller makes a good point in his book The Meaning of Marriage when he says something like, “Why should we expect two people who are neurotic and selfish and self-centered to all of a sudden become angels when they become married?”

Mark frequently teaches on Monday evenings at Re|Engage.

Mark frequently teaches on Monday evenings at Re|Engage.

Prepare, care, and repair

So we’re trying to be more intentional about the ways we want to help strengthen marriages at all stages. We think in terms of what we can do to help couples prepare for marriage, care for their marriages, and when needed, repair their marriages. Whether they are three years in or thirty years in, we want to be there to help when they hit a rough spot in the relationship.

In the prepare area, we have deepened and broadened our Preparation for Marriage class to make sure that we equip couples to go into marriage with their eyes wide open. We want them to spend some time talking about things like finances and living in a sex-saturated culture.

In the care arena, we’ve started by helping newlyweds. The As One Sunday-morning Adult Community was designed very specifically for newly married couples. We want to make sure they start their marriages on solid footing. It is far easier to start off well in a marriage than it is to attempt to repair it many years down the road. For couples further along, there’s Re | Engage. It’s for couples who either are struggling or who want to intentionally take their marriages to the next level. Re | Engage currently has five groups meeting, and around 10 couples have recently come to check it out. So somewhere around 34 couples have experienced or are currently experiencing that powerful program. The stories we hear about how God is using Re|Engage are just great.

Of course we also do some individual counseling with couples, but more and more, Re|Engage has been proven to be an even more helpful option for many marriages.

You are also our Men’s Pastor. Can you talk a little about how God prepared you for that role?

For more than twenty years I’ve felt that men need other men in their lives who are able to sharpen them. As Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” On a personal level, I’ve had one guy in particular who’s been an accountability partner since the early nineties. In fact, I’ve always tried to have at least two or three men with whom I pretty much share everything of what’s going on in my life.

As I’ve ministered to men for some time now, I’ve come to believe that there are a couple of kinds of relationships that a man should have with other men. The first is what Dallas Theological Seminary professor Howard Hendricks called “Paul and Barnabas” relationships—relationships between peers who are going through life together.

Paul-and-Barnabas Relationships

I was explaining to someone what that looks like in terms of three doors men can choose to open to others. Behind door number one are the things that we tell just about anyone—surface things, like how we feel about the Cubs or the Bears, or maybe what we did on vacation. We open that door regularly for anybody to see what’s going on.

On another level is door number two. We might open that door when somebody asks, “How’s it going?” If a guy thinks the other person might actually be interested, he may pause and say, “I could be doing better.” Or “My wife is sick,” or “I’ve got a cold,” or whatever.

Opening door number three is a step beyond that, where we would honestly answer a question like, “What are you really struggling with in life?” That can be tough to talk about, especially as it relates to sin. There are very few guys that you’re going to be open and vulnerable with enough to be able to say, “I’m really struggling with anger, or worry, or temptation, or something else.” It’s probably a really small group. But from my perspective, there is a need for those relationships if we want to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Men need those Paul-and-Barnabas-type relationships.

Paul-and-Timothy Relationships

There are also the Paul-and-Timothy relationships we want to see men experience. To an older, more mature guy, I’d ask, Who’s the young guy that you’re pouring into? And to young men, I’d say, Who’s the older guy that you’re “going to school on” in terms of the mentoring process? 

We’ve structured our Men’s Ministry in a way that we hope will encourage those kinds of relationships to develop and grow. You can’t force friendship, because there is chemistry involved, but we can create a “fishing pool” where guys can meet. The Bible studies are a great place for the sparks of relationship to start, even if they have only a little bit of a door-number-two—or even three—component to it.

Talk a little about the Men’s Bible studies.

Thursday morning Huddle and Saturday Men’s Bible Study—each have the same type of format, beginning with a teaching time when we present truth. The second half of those studies takes place in small groups of five to ten guys sitting at tables. We want to make sure that we’re moving past instruction (taking in head knowledge) to applying the truth of what we learn in ways that make a difference in our lives. Prayer is also part of the small-group time.

There’s also a Senior Men’s Bible Study that meets later on Thursday mornings and offers the same kind of time in God’s Word and fellowship.

Top Gun is our intensive discipleship program for guys. It lasts at least a year and involves guys who are willing to commit a couple of hours each week to reading from a book we’re working through and other selected resources. There is also the challenge of Scripture memorization. In addition, each guy is expected to be growing in his prayer life and working intentionally through other exercises, including the development of a personal mission statement.

This year we have eight Top Gun groups, and a total of about sixty guys. That’s up from six groups last year, and we’re pleased to see more men getting involved in that kind of discipleship.

The last part of your title says, “and Care.” Tell us about what Care looks like at Wheaton Bible Church. 

Obviously, our support groups are a big part of our Care ministry. They are overseen by Support Ministries Pastor Bill Brown and include the Monday night family groups—Caring for Kids, Single Parenting group, DivorceCare, and  GriefShare. Celebrate Recovery and CHAI (for survivors of childhood abuse) also meet on Monday evenings. Other groups are Restore after Abortion, Faithful & True, and COMPASS (for men who are committed to living lives of sexual integrity). Also falling into the area of care are Career Transition Workshop and Networking group, Re | Engage, and Financial Peace University.

Care also has a natural link with another resource, which is individual counseling. For the last several years we’ve brought a professional counselor on campus to provide services in the church offices as needed to supplement the counseling that our pastors are providing.

It’s been interesting to see how the need for a good portion of those counseling hours—particularly for the 60 to 70 percent of the cases we were seeing related to marriage issues—has been eliminated as Re | Engage has taken part of the counseling effort and moved it to lay-people who are equipped to be on the front lines.  That’s definitely connected to the way marriages are  being healed and made stronger through Re|Engage.

You made a natural connection between Marriage and Care. Are there other ways your ministry areas work together? 

The longer I’ve been in this role, the more connectedness I am seeing between these areas. The truth is, men play key roles in families. Studies show that if only the father is regular in his church attendance and in his walk with God, the children have a far greater likelihood of continuing to be active in the church and following Christ than if it is just the mother who is regular in her walk. So, being able to help men grow as disciples is an incredible opportunity.

Considering the research and our own observations about the connectedness of spiritual growth for men, their marriages, and their families, my oversight of both men’s and marriage ministries is a natural blend.

I think that all these areas are continually working together within the Body of Christ, touching lives in a variety of ways. For example, as we help people get whole and healthy—and sometimes that means care for them as individuals or for their marriages—they often get connected with others in the church and begin building those relationships. And if they haven’t already come to faith, then they become followers of Christ and are discipled and grow.

Any final thoughts? 

A reality that’s central to much of what I work with in all these areas is the fact that we all are broken. If you’ve read books like Paul Tripp’s Broken-Down House, you can see that the problem is that we come to the table thinking we’re not broken, and we don’t acknowledge that we are fundamentally selfish. We don’t acknowledge that we want to make life about me. But once we start to admit that, it’s going to have implications in terms of our marriages. It’s going to have implications for us as men in the way we lead in the home, and in our relationships with our wives and our children.

The cure to that brokenness happens when we are in the Word and sitting under the teaching of the Word. Then we need to let the Word transform our lives. And that is exactly what’s going on in all these ministries we’ve been talking about. Whether we’re talking about one of the support groups, Re|Engage, or one of the Bible studies, we are all about getting people into the Word and applying its truth to the real issues of life. That’s where life change happens.

All the things we’re talking about, whether men’s ministries, marriage ministries, or the care ministries, the intent is to help facilitate those transformation stories of what God is doing in people’s lives.

Sometimes I think that the assignment my title implies is impossibly wide and deep, but I have to say that I love being a cog in that process of healing and growing and making disciples in and through Wheaton Bible Church.

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This entry was posted on March 14, 2014 by in Spring 2014 and tagged , , , , .

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